Empirical qualitative research demonstrates that the subjective experience of women’s body’s failure to conform to beauty norms causes an affective pattern in the subject – self-consciousness, shame, guilt, distress – that can cement the female subject’s dependency on the body-as-self, and hence their docility34. Moreover, recent sociological research in the Australian context suggests that the social status of the Brazilian wax is evolving. At the high end of the age scale for one study’s’ sample, a twenty-seven-year-old woman ‘recounted her perception of early sexual partners not having expectations in relation to genital grooming’35, but at the low end an 18-year-old female participant stated that ‘in her social group it was essential that something be done to fashion female pubic hair’36. Alexandra James (2014) posits that the designer vagina emerged in 1980s pornography. But her findings suggest that there has been a ‘perceived generational shift during the last eight to ten years’37. This shift is such that ‘neglecting to depilate is not to be taken lightly…a woman risks not only her position in a social group, but her identity as a sexually attractive female’38. This recent shift suggests that the ‘designer vagina’ has become a norm for female embodiment. In her classic feminist text, The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer wrote:
If [women] do not feel sufficient revulsion for their body hair themselves, others will direct them to depilate themselves. In extreme cases, women shave or pluck their pubic area, so as to seem more sexless and infantile39.
But where Greer, writing in 1970, could call the depilation of the pubic area an ‘extreme case’, the norm appears to have shifted, or is shifting. What was an extreme has become the norm, at least for younger generations of women40. James’s research suggests that this designer vagina is now the minimum standard for young heterosexual couples:
According to Jillian, 26, should women fail to depilate, they may ‘not get the sex they want’. Clarissa, 27, agreed, saying that men may have a change of heart in their decision to sexually engage with a woman upon discovering she is not groomed in the acceptable way41.
James’ research suggests that two forces work in a cluster to enforce the image of the designer vagina as a norm. Firstly, a force exerts itself on younger women through pornography, though in a circuitous way – the standard of the waxed, ‘perfect’ vulva is ‘conveyed to women via their male sexual partner’42. Secondly, a force exerts itself through the rise in advertising for vaginal grooming, which, ironically, young women understand as a newfound freedom with regards to sex. That the designer vagina is perceived as the standard is exacerbated by a lack of alternative representations other than those that flow from these two streams.